Music scene snared by COVID-19 art

Editor’s note: Sam Crisler was previously employed at The Daily Nebraskan.

Usually bursting with the clamor of instruments and cheering fans, the Bourbon Theatre is now filled with silence. What is normally a popular spot for bands and fans to congregate stays locked — the floors that once held hordes of music lovers will remain empty until COVID-19 cases greatly reduce.

Though not being able to attend a concert might not be a major concern for some Lincoln residents, the virus’ spread is keeping local music venues like the Bourbon closed. For local musicians, this means months without playing shows, canceled tours and for some, a lack of income.

Musician David McInnis of Omaha band Magū said he was devastated when he realized his 10-day Midwestern tour would no longer take place.

“[The pandemic] hit people at different times, but entertainment and arts revolve around gatherings and bringing people together — that was hit first with the first wave of restrictions and guidelines,” McInnis said.

Like many other musicians, McInnis said he lost the money he invested in promoting his tour and creating merchandise for shows he was hoping would be successful. It’s a major setback, McInnis said, but this hasn’t stopped him from supporting the local music scene.

As an artist, McInnis said he can sympathize with others who are struggling as a result of canceled shows. McInnis has started two different fundraisers on Facebook for artists who are struggling financially due to COVID-19.

Even with the uncertainty of the next gig, McInnis hopes some time off from playing music will be just the spark of creativity some artists need.

“It’ll be a good time for a lot of artists to think of some new stuff,” McInnis said. “I’m looking forward to the generation of artists who are making music right now because it’ll definitely be an interesting time to look back on.”

While McInnis eagerly anticipates the return of the local music scene, plenty of adversity still remains. For bookers, making the final call to postpone or cancel a show is never an easy decision. Musician and owner of Bonehead Booking Sam Crisler said pulling the plug on concerts just when his booking business was gaining traction was a painful necessity.

Most artists for whom Crisler canceled shows were in agreement, albeit frustrated. Crisler, who drums in Lincoln band Death Cow, said he understands their grief because a few of his own band’s shows were canceled as well.

Regardless, Crisler said, his ability to commiserate didn’t make breaking the news any less difficult.

“It was devastating for a lot of people who had giant, giant tours coming up. All of the planning and promotion just goes out the window,” Crisler said. “It doesn’t feel too good to tell them.”

Crisler said even though he’s passionate about promoting the local music scene, he couldn’t let the possibility of spreading the contagion rest on his conscience.

“I don’t want to be the reason someone gets coronavirus. I don’t want to be facilitating that environment,” Crisler said. 

This meant canceling a show Crisler was especially excited for. Wichita, Kansas artist Yasmin Nur was set to perform in Lincoln on March 15, around the time when COVID-19 headlines were beginning to depict a sense of urgency. After the U.S. declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13, Crisler said he felt he had made the right choice.

“There would have been a good crowd there — a lot of people moshing and stuff, so it would’ve been a coronavirus cesspool,” Crisler said.

To play her part in preventing a COVID-19 cesspool from forming, Lincoln musician Marina Kushner of Vera Devorah booked a secluded Airbnb where her band convened.

The group booked a cabin an hour south of Lincoln in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, serenely away from people. Kushner said it was the ideal place to cultivate creativity without having to worry about a nearby stranger’s uncovered cough.

Marina and her bandmates spent a week sleeping in the loft of the cabin with their bulky recording equipment on the main floor. The getaway was refreshing, she said, but also served a purpose. Following the cancellation of the tour, Kushner’s band decided to book the cabin and record an album instead. 

“It’s not an easy thing to admit to yourself that it’s time to make that call,” Kushner said.

But Kushner did make the call, however reluctantly, and said she now is looking forward to time in solitude, not jumping the gun when it comes to playing future shows.

“I definitely don’t want to be the first person who has a show or a tour as soon as things are supposedly back to normal,” Kushner said. “I just don’t think we should underestimate what’s happening and put other people at risk even if it doesn’t seem like a huge risk to ourselves.”

For now, local artists like McInnis are asking their fanbase via virtual platforms to buy their albums and stream their music even though they won’t be putting on concerts. This, McInnis said, is a realistic way for the community to support its musicians.

Many artists are asking themselves when they will be able to play for an audience again. With music venues such as the Bourbon Theatre closed for an indefinite amount of time, musicians like Crisler are questioning whether the music scene will look the same when things return to normal — or if things will ever be normal again.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the coronavirus,” Crisler said. “We don’t know how screwed up it’s going to be when this is all over. Worst case scenario the world could be burning to the ground.”